Visual Arts07 Oct 2010 02:44 pm
Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (“The Luncheon on the Grass”) — originally titled Le Bain (The Bath) — is a major early work by the artist Édouard Manet. Created in 1862 and 1863, the Paris Salon rejected it for biennial exhibition in 1863, but he was able to show it at the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Rejected) later that year. Emperor Napoleon III had initiated The Salon des Refusés after the Paris Salon rejected more than 4,000 paintings in 1863, over half of the works that were submitted to the committee that year.
The painting’s depiction of a female nude sitting in a park with two fully dressed men sparked controversy and intense debate at the exhibition. It was not the first time a female nude had been juxtaposed with clothed men, although the woman’s pose, which reveals little to the viewer except that she is naked, and he direct gaze, which conveys an immodest lack of shame, subverted the Salon’s traditional image of the female nude.
Nevertheless, the real controversy in the 1860’s was the painting’s size in relation to its subject matter. Manet’s Déjeuner posed problems of classification: it was too big to be a genre piece, too modern to be pastoral, too inscrutable to be a conversation piece. Manet’s canvas, measuring 7 by 8½ feet, was the largest that he had used at that point in his career. Canvasses this large were traditionally employed for the re-creation of noble events: historical, religious, and mythological ones: Manet’s depiction of an everyday scene on a large scale blatantly undermined this convention.
Earlier that year, the artist’s first champion, Émile Zola, had published a lengthy and glowing article about Manet. “The future is his,” Zola proclaimed. He insisted that the much-maligned Déjeuner sur l’herbe (which was included in Manet’s 1867 exhibition) would one day hang in the Louvre. Zola proved prophetic; it took almost seventy years, but the painting entered the collection of the Louvre (now Musée d’Orsay) in 1934.
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